Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #43/50…La Mer by Claude Debussy

A painting using block print technique. It is called "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" by Japanese artist, Hokusai.

Of all of the classical music compositions featured in the Keepin’ It Classy series, “La Mer” by Claude Debussy is arguably one of the least recognizable to non-classical music fans. However, it stands as one of the most important pieces of music ever created because of the time period when it was created, its source of inspiration and what both came to symbolize going forward into history. The story of “La Mer” is the story of three “sketches” of music, but it is also the story of one of the world’s most famous works of art. It came to be regarded as announcing the arrival of the Impressionist Movement in Western Civilization. As if this wasn’t enough, “La Mer” is also connected with the geopolitical saga of Japan in which the era of the Shoguns ended and the country reintegrated itself into the world of European commerce and culture. “La Mer” by Claude Debussy has come to symbolize the arrival of a grand sweeping cultural revolution and, as such, its importance cannot be understated, even if it is not as instantly recognizable to the ear as compositions by the likes of Mozart or Beethoven. So sit back and make yourself comfortable. The story of “La Mer” is quite a story, indeed, and it begins right now.

If you are a student of history at all, then you know that historical events tend to come in cycles or, shall we say, in waves. In order to appreciate the historical significance of “La Mer”, we must first understand the state of the world at the time. In particular, we need to understand the geopolitical state of Japan prior to the 1800s, and we need to know about the socio-political state of Europe as well. Without going into too much detail, those stories go something like this. For several centuries, Japan sealed itself off from the rest of the modern world. It was an era in that nation’s history when the country was ruled by strongmen known as Shoguns. While not exactly the same as the European model of nobility and the ruling elite, Shoguns tended to be dynastic, meaning that generations of family members ruled kingdoms or fiefdoms through military strength and religious adherence. In time, the rule of the Shoguns gave way to a more modern and democratic form of government. This transition began happening in the late 1700s and blossomed into fruition in the mid-1800s. One of the things that spurred this political transition was the arrival of European traders and merchants upon Japanese shores. By the mid-1800s, the rulers of Japan began signing trade agreements with the leaders of Western European countries. This resulted in a sudden influx into Europe of Japanese culture. To use a term from 2023 to describe the impact of this in Europe, one could say that interest in Japanese culture by Europeans went viral. It was the height of fashion to collect Japanese Art and other trinkets and objects related to the culture of this mysterious land.

Meanwhile in Europe, as we have seen many times throughout the course of this series, European countries were structured in the same dynastic manner as Japan had been during its Shogun era of history. There were Kings and Queens who passed down the power that came with the throne to pre-selected heirs who tended to be family members. Their power was absolute. Much of the art at the time reflected this hierarchical system of governance that also included the power of The Pope and the Catholic Church in Rome. Thus symphonies and operas that were created up until the end of the 1700s tended to showcase themes of religion, or else be such that they would honour those members of the ruling class who supported their work through patronage. In painting, as in classical composition, there were traditional methods and formulas that all artists were expected to follow. Thus the quality of a piece of art or music was often determined by how well it fit into the standard format. Consequently, when musical geniuses such as Beethoven or Mozart came along and resisted the pressure to adhere to standard protocol and, instead, opted to push the boundaries of their art beyond that which had been done in the past, they received pushback from older, more established members of their field. The breakthroughs made by trailblazers such as Mozart and Beethoven to open up the worlds of art and music to innovation cannot be understated. Because of the efforts of Mozart and others, composers like Claude Debussy were able to come along a century later and launch an entirely new way of thinking about art called Impressionism. But before we dive into that, let’s head back to Japan for a moment and talk about a work of art from there that changed the world. That piece of art was called The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The artist was named Katsushika Hokusai. 

Hokusai, as he was generally known, was a Japanese artist who created a series of thirty block print paintings that all featured Mount Fuji. Hokusai created these works in the 1820s. In Japan, his work created a sensation because of his use of blue pigmentation. Up until that point, blue pigment was not available to Japanese artists. However, once European traders began calling at Japanese ports, blue pigment was introduced into the country. Consequently, the use of vivid blue in Hokusai’s series of thirty block prints caused quite the stir in his homeland. At the same time, because trade routes had become reopened, the flow of Japanese cultural artifacts to Europe exploded. Not long after Hokusai had finished his series, his paintings began appearing in Europe. Their arrival caused just as big a stir there as the blue pigment had in Japan. One of the reasons that Hokusai’s paintings were important to other European artists was that Hokusai abandoned standard illustration techniques that had been adhered to for centuries and were thought as being integral to the process of showing the world through painting and drawing. Specifically, Hokusai completely disregarded the standard use of perspective. Perspective is the practice of positioning objects on a page in relation to the viewer. This means that when we look at a painting or a drawing, we look at objects in the foreground, the middle ground and the background of the piece. Objects in the foreground (which is closest to the viewer) tend to be bigger and show more detail. Objects in the background tend to be smaller and show less detail. It is all fairly basic stuff when it comes to art. However, Hokusai created his thirty print blocks using a technique in which the most important focal point of the piece was made the biggest and most detailed, regardless of its relationship to other objects in the same frame. This technique would imply that objects in his work would be displayed in a disproportionate manner to each other, with the end result being that the work of art would take on an absurdist quality. The amazing thing was that Hokusai used his own version of perspective, and instead of creating chaos, it made his art even more striking and dynamic. That something as fundamental as basic perspective could be turned on its ear and result in even better art changed the way many creative thinkers thought of what was possible in their own art. 

Portrait of artist and ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) by Japanese School;

There are entire university-level courses devoted to Hoksuai and the impact of his art on Western culture. But for the purposes of this post, the important consequence was that the impact of his art came across like a wrecking ball to the status quo. The introduction of Hokusai’s work helped launch the cultural movement of Impressionism throughout Europe and North America. The purpose of art up until that time was usually to honour God and/or the ruling class. And so, the role of art and of being an artist was to help perpetuate the political structure of society. Hokusai’s art changed everything about how art and artistic expression came to be viewed. Artists such as Monet, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin and Cézanne began creating art for the sake of art and beauty and the emotions that such images evoked. Their paintings became more colourful and less concerned with the attention to detail that came to define the period known as Realism as practiced by painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, with their lifelike portraits that accentuated the use of light and shadow. In music, there was a child prodigy who grew up just as interest in Japanese culture was beginning to be a trend. His name was Claude Debussy. In time, Debussy would win an award called La Prix de Rome for his musical prowess. This scholarship allowed Debussy (who was French) to study in Rome under the tutelage of some of the music world’s greatest and most respected teachers. However, once in Rome, the teenaged Debussy became disenchanted with the rigorous curriculum and its reliance on structure. Instead, Debussy became rebellious and began composing works that were noted for their lack of adherence to traditional musical formats and structures. One of the sources of his inspiration was seeing the waves of Japanese art that were flooding Rome at the time. In particular, Debussy became enamoured with Hokusai’s work: specifically with his painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa.   

Composer Claude Debussy

One of the criticisms leveled at Debussy by his professors, as well as by music critics back in Paris when Debussy returned and started performing his work there, was that his work had little or no emotional impact on audiences. This criticism was offered because critics and audiences were used to responding to symphonies and operas through the lens of the standard classical music structure that had existed for centuries. Like Hokusai’s paintings, Debussy’s compositions abandoned preconceived boundaries and reinvented the musical form. In the case of his specific music, Debussy created works that he wanted to be experienced in their totality, rather than their component parts. For this reason, when he created “La Mer” (which is French for “The Sea”), he took great pains to not refer to his work as being a symphony. He felt that calling it a symphony would imply that he was following the standard symphonic format. He was not. Therefore, he referred to the three movements within “La Mer” as merely being musical sketches. For the design of the libretto that accompanied his work, Debussy looked to Hokusai and used a reproduction of his painting The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

The Golden Ratio illustrated.

Just as Mozart and Beethoven were criticized for daring to alter the standard musical forms of their day (with all of the political implications of such an act), Debussy and the Impressionists faced similar criticisms as the 1800s drew to a close. You may recall an earlier post about Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and the controversy he caused in Paris when his opera The Rite of Spring debuted (*It caused a riot. In case you forget what happened and why, you can read the post here). In general, change is not always welcomed nor easily accepted by those who view changes to the status quo as being threatening. Debussy’s music was dismissed as lacking impact and being formless and emotionally inert, as if it was simply pudding without a bowl. However, Debussy’s music, like Hokusai’s painting techniques, was far from formless and wishy-washy, as many critics charged. In both specific cases of Hokusai and Debussy (along with many of their Impressionist colleagues), their art was the opposite of being formless. Instead, it was steeped in mathematics. I have always believed that if there is a God who watches over us and is responsible for all of life on our planet, then that God is a mathematician. I am a firm believer that our world is constructed on the basis of mathematics. I wish I were more mathematically minded so that I could better see and feel the poetry of numbers that I know exists and that fuels our planet. Without getting into too much detail, there exists in nature a mathematical phenomenon known as The Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is derived from a series of numbers known as Fibonacci Numbers. This sequence of numbers starts out as being 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on. The sequence happens when two numbers are added together to give you a third number. So, “0” + “1” gives you “1”. “1’ + “1” gives you the next number in the sequence, which is “2”. If you look back at the original number sequence above, whenever you add two numbers together, it gives you the next number in the sequence. The Fibonacci number sequence goes on into infinity. What is so special about Fibonacci numbers is that this sequence of numbers appears in nature all of the time, all over the world. For a simple example, the way a sunflower is constructed always comes back to a number on the Fibonacci sequence, i.e., the number of petals will be a Fibonacci number or the number of seed pockets will be a Fibonacci number. The same is true for pinecones. The examples go on and on. What is important to know about Fibonacci numbers and The Golden Ratio (which is what you get when you divide one Fibonacci number into the one that follows it) is that our natural world operates on a system of mathematics, even if we don’t realize it. So, when Debussy, Hokusai and other Impressionist artists threw off the shackles of man made rules and formats and structures, they didn’t do so in a fit of pique that created chaos. They did so using mathematics, and in particular, they created work that aligned itself with The Golden Ratio and with Fibonacci numbers. In doing so, the emotional feeling that emanates from their work is often described as being relaxing or awe-inspiring. This is because their work is more in tune with the natural rhythms that drive life in nature all around us. 

How the Golden Ratio appears in nature.

As a general rule in my own life, I am much more receptive to people and practices that are in tune with nature than I am with those who seek to impose their will upon nature.  That’s why I think we have a lot to learn about living successfully and in harmony with nature from our Indigenous friends. That’s why I am drawn to eastern practices such as Taoism and Feng Shui as well. If you view daily living as being a radio dial, then for me, I prefer to place the dial in a position where it is on the same frequency as the natural world around me. I find it is easier to live in harmony with nature than to work against it by trying to impose my will upon it. *(This makes me realize that perhaps my wife is correct and I should stop worrying about my lawn with regard to fertilizing it and overseeding it and just let it be). In any case, the construction of Hokusai’s painting The Great Wave Off Kanagawa may have abandoned traditional views on perspective, but it did so in favour of using The Golden Ratio as a guide. That painting is regarded as one of the most well known and popular paintings ever made. We may not immediately recognize nor appreciate the mathematical underpinnings of our attraction to it, but those mathematical underpinnings exist. The same applies to Monet’s Water Lilies and Gaugin’s Tahitian island worlds. The same is also true of Debussy’s “La Mer”. There is an art and a science to how life works when it works well. If there is indeed a God, then God is an artist and a scientist, and mathematics is religion. 

The link to the video for the composition “La Mer” by Claude Debussy can be found here.

The link to the official website for Claude Debussy can be found here.

The link to the official website for Hokusai can be found here.

If you wish to know more about the mathematics of nature, Fibonacci numbers and The Golden Ratio, there are plenty of websites you can access. A good place to start can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

3 thoughts on “Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #43/50…La Mer by Claude Debussy”

  1. No idea about the history of this composition, nor the connection with a Japanese artist and mathematics. Very interesting stuff. My mind wandered to my post I already wrote for tomorrow on Bobby Darin. It’s a mini bio so I didn’t talk about his song “Beyond the Sea” based on “La Mer” by Albert Lasry and Charles Trenet. I know there’s nothing unique about sea themed songs but one has to wonder if Debussy was not the inspiration there as well!

    1. I have only taken a cursory glance at the question you have raised but, from what I can tell, the Trenet version of “La Mer” is something completely separate from what Debussy did. As to the question of if he was originally inspired by Debussy, who knows? But I will keep looking. If I find anything I will contact you again. IF you don’t hear from me on the subject then, you have an answer that way, too. 🙂

      1. Thanks so much for getting back and following up Tom. You’re writing is always so comprehensive I hate to have you log any time on my perhaps silly comparison.

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